One month after the historic summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, matchmaker South Korean President Moon Jae-in dispatched on a peace in tour to Southeast Asia.

The man whose personal diplomacy played an indispensable role in bringing together the two longtime adversaries spent three days in Singapore, the wealthy Asian city-state that played host to the landmark summit, for a high-profile state visit.

“One cannot talk of peace without speaking of Singapore,” he said in the highlight lecture of his visit, where he conveyed a message of gratitude and praise while underscoring the important role that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) can play in integrating North Korea into the international community.

Moon’s visit showcased his administration’s “New Southern Policy,” a key strategy that seeks to diversify and enhance Seoul’s political and economic relations with ASEAN’s 10 member states, as well as India, where the South Korean leader embarked from prior to arriving in Singapore.

According to Kim Hyun-chong, Seoul’s trade minister, India and ASEAN are “thought to be the next China” in terms of economic growth. That means South Korea aims to enhance strategic cooperation with them to the level of major powers such as the US, Russia, China and Japan, countries that have traditionally been the focus of Seoul’s foreign policy.

South Korean Trade Minister Kim Hyun-chong speaks during a briefing at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul on March 26, 2018.Seoul has agreed to cut steel exports to the US by 30% and accepted extended tariffs on South Korean pickups to secure a revised trade deal with the US and escape Washington's steel duties. Photo: AFP via Yonhap
South Korean Trade Minister Kim Hyun-chong speaks during a briefing at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul on March 26, 2018. Photo: AFP via Yonhap

Seoul’s diversification strategy took on new urgency after recent rifts with its traditional trading partners. Ties with Beijing were strained last year over the deployment of THAAD  (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense), the US missile defense system, which led to economic retaliation measures from China, the world’s single largest importer of South Korean goods.

According to the Hyundai Research Institute, China’s retaliatory measures cost the South Korean economy an estimated US$15.6 billion, though both countries have since moved to repair ties. More recently, import tariffs and trade war fears instigated by Trump have stoked anxieties among export-oriented South Korean companies.

South Korea’s pivot toward ASEAN is as much about inter-Korean diplomacy as it is about trade, however. Moon elaborated on the importance of ASEAN during an address to the Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) titled “Republic of Korea and ASEAN: Partners for Achieving Peace and Co-prosperity in East Asia.”

The president praised the grouping for its role in integrating Pyongyang into the ASEAN Regional Forum, which Moon noted was “the only multilateral forum in which the North participates.” He also highlighted how “ASEAN and the North had formed mutually beneficial relationships for economic cooperation.”

“When international sanctions against the North are lifted following complete denuclearization by North Korea, the once-vibrant economic cooperation between North Korea and Asean will be revived again,” he told audiences, describing a peaceful Korean Peninsula as a “new economic growth engine” for ASEAN countries.

Though he acknowledged the difficulties inherent in mapping out a detailed denuclearization plan, Moon remained hopeful that the negotiation process underway between Washington and Pyongyang would lead to a breakthrough, “even if there are some bumps and bruises” along the way.

US President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore on June 12. Photo: AFP/Saul Loeb
US President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore on June 12. Photo: AFP/Saul Loeb

North Korean state media recently accused Washington of making “gangster-like” demands after a round of talks last week. That message contradicted US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who cast the negotiations in a positive light. Moon, in separate comments to media in Singapore, said talks were still on the “right track” and cast Pyongyang’s criticism of Pompeo as a negotiating “strategy.”

If the US and North Korea “do not keep the promise made by their leaders in front of the international community,” said Moon, both leaders would have to “face repercussions from the international community,” in a careful remark aimed at articulating a clear equivalency between the actions and responsibilities of the two sides.

His address praised the constructive role of ASEAN, which “exemplified the possibility of diverse civilizations coexisting peacefully,” while making special mention of Singapore for its social harmony, merit-based pragmatism and economic prosperity. He also lauded the city-state’s “consistent endeavors for peace.”

Fresh off the reputational high of playing host to the historic June 12 summit, Singapore now stands out as chief among the countries South Korea looks to engage as part of its wider approach to ASEAN, a development that coincides with the city-state presiding over this year’s agenda-setting rotating chairmanship of the grouping.

South Korea and Singapore already share robust economic ties, with bilateral trade amounting to US$33.5 billion in 2017. Singapore is Seoul’s fourth largest foreign investor, while the city-state is South Korea’s second largest trading partner in Asean after Vietnam. Both countries have recently taken steps to enhance their economic cooperation.

This handout photo taken and released on July 12, 2018 by the Ministry of Communications and Information of Singapore shows South Korea's President Moon Jae-in (L) shaking hands with Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (R) after a joint press conference at the Istana presidential palace in Singapore. / AFP PHOTO / MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION / Terence TAN / --- EDITORS NOTE --- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION OF SINGAPORE / TERENCE TAN" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
South Korean President Moon Jae-in (left) shaking hands with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong after a joint press conference at the Istana presidential palace in Singapore. Photo: AFP/Handout

Moon met with several Singapore officials including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during his state visit, which saw the two leaders sign partnerships aimed at strengthening bilateral trade and investment, as well as six memoranda of understanding covering the environment, free trade, and small and medium-sized enterprises, among other areas.

“These agreements build upon our existing cooperation and trade mechanisms, but also our complementary strengths,” said Lee, who emphasized both countries’ commitments to free-trade multilateralism. “We also welcome Korean companies to take advantage of Singapore to expand into the ASEAN region.”

Hosting last month’s summit cost the wealthy city-state about US$11.9 million, the largest component being spent on security for the two visiting delegations. Lee has characterized the spending as Singapore’s “contribution to an international endeavor which is in our profound interest.”

Media intelligence firm Meltwater estimated that Singapore gained S$767 million (US$561 million) in advertising value from the global media exposure reaped from hosting the event. More than 2,500 foreign reporters descended on the island to report on the first-ever meeting between Trump and Kim.

President Moon, on the other hand, has enjoyed record-high domestic approval ratings as a result of his diplomacy with Pyongyang. The South Korean leader’s latest overseas trip, meanwhile, was a testament to how Asia’s most politically significant regional grouping can play a meaningful role in fortifying inter-Korean peace.